Social Scientist as Game Designer

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

I have wondered for a while now if a social scientist, given the proper training, would make a good game designer. Heck, give him a double major in psychology and I think one might have the next super dev.

This thought sprout out of my recent break from LOTRO (and blogging). Why did I just drop the game? Well, I started getting bored. I played LOTRO since August of '06 when I was invited to the closed beta. That's three years to the point that I stopped playing (a little longer). I don't think anybody could fault someone for taking a break after that sort of investment. But why was I bored?

It's that kind of question that speaks to a social scientist. I happen to be one, or my degree is in social science. Perhaps armchair social scientist is a better term for what I do. I'm certainly not employed in the field. I digress. If we can answer those types of questions then I think MMOs can be designed to with greater sticking power.

This type of discussion came up in the latest Shut Up We're Talking. Interestingly enough, this is the latest episode after Darren (the host) took a break from MMO playing and podcasting/blogging. Coincidence? I don't think so. Every guest agreed that there is (was?) a general discontentment amongst the blogosphere about MMOs through no fault of the games. Instead, it's the player's attitudes that are changing, rather than the games themselves. Perhaps that's the problem? Shouldn't the games adapt to what the players want?

I speak in generalities, of course. Not every MMO player is burned out. The industry is still going strong. And MMOs do try to cater to what their population wants. So what's the missing link here - the muscle tissue, bone structure, that can lead the way to better design?

I think the answer lies in understanding how people think, particularly players. One way they think is that not all of them think the same thing. SUWT touched on this and I think they're right: MMOs cannot cater to all audiences. WoW is the exception to the rule, the fluke, the unrepeatable success (well, maybe another Blizzard MMO). Instead of sending a dev team off with 50 million dollars to make the next WoW how about a few million and focus on a particular playstyle? Darkfall anybody?

Seriously. Darkfall did that. So did Fallen Earth. Both are successful in their target audience. And those who don't like PvP or post-apocalyptic worlds don't care. That's fine. Ideally there will be a MMO for you.

So what does all this have to do with LOTRO? Yes, this is still a LOTRO blog and I will not post without somehow linking it back to my beloved game. And yes, I still love this game. As a wise parent once told me, love is a choice, not an emotion. I choose to love LOTRO even though I'm not feeling it right now. Eh, more digression.

LOTRO seems to be lacking something for me - I'm not quite in their target audience. Oh, sure, I look like it on the outside. I love the Lord of the Rings. I love RPGs. I'm a completionist. I can't stand PvP. Still, I'm straddling the line.

I game for story. LOTRO has an awesome story. But all the other mechanics have impeded me in my quest to experience the story. Not because they're bad mechanics, or cumbersome. No, they're just required to use in order to play the story. So am I complaining that I can't just watch the LOTRO story passively? No. That wasn't what LOTRO was designed for. My increasing appetite for story out of my games is my own problem, not LOTROs. But I think games can be designed for people like me: The Longest Journey for instance. Or even the Bioware RPGs - heavy on talking and story (which is what I have been playing instead of LOTRO).

Those are single-player examples. Can MMOs focus on story to the extent I want? Sure. The better question is "Is the target audience large enough to sustain such an MMO?" Let's go back to that money thing: Yes, if the budget and development take into account target audience size. What would that MMO look like? Good question. One I'm going to save for later.

In any case, a social scientist understands personal and group motivations (or attempts to understand them). Considering MMOs deal with both motivations shouldn't we consider the value of such perspectives when developing these games?


Of Fading Journeys

Friday, October 30, 2009

If I hunted as much as my character hunts in LOTRO, I'd either be the world's best hunter or spending my life in prison for single-handedly killing off the world's food supply. Or both. You've all probably heard the gripe before - why do we kill so much wildlife? It's not just predators. We're slaughtering flies, deer, elk, neekers...

I'm not really bothered by this. I just bring it up to illustrate a larger point about LOTRO being very much a game. I think now that I've been playing for a few years the magic has worn off and the virtual world skin has faded to reveal the true game beneath. There's very few MMOs, if any, that can truely be called a virtual world. That's because when we say MMO, or more correctly, MMORPG, we're stressing the G. The loss of the G is probably a side-effect of taking out RP. Very few of us actually role-play and there's hardly any structured support for that type of activity in the game anyway.

Back to game vs virtual world. Beyond any other reason, I picked up LOTRO because I wanted a virtual Middle-Earth. With Shadows of Angmar, I got that, in so much as what was in at release. Now we're moving away, and while we see more of Middle-Earth, it's simply because that's where the fellowship is going and where we can introduce fun and cool and engaging content. The space serves the game rather than the game serves the space. I'm not arguing that this is not the way it should be. Indeed, LOTRO is a game and should be developed towards a game. Furthermore, the recent and future content is and will be engaging. But it's not what I came to LOTRO for. I found fun, but not quite the fun I wanted. Only now that I've nearly exhausted that fun, have I seen this.

To that end, the very gamey nature of LOTRO stands out for me more and more with each passing moment (boars, boars, and more boars). There will come a time, and quite quickly I'm afraid, where I'll cease to see it as a virtual representation of Middle-Earth at all, but rather a MMO with a Lord of the Rings skin. This saddens me in a way. First, because I really do love this game. And second, because despite such love, I cannot be sustained by it.

All this, I think, is at the core of my recent apathy towards logging in and keeping current with this blog. It is with deep regret that I make what might seem like an abrupt about-face with The Adventurer, and say good-bye to blogging. It is not that I do not have anything to say, or that I'm quitting LOTRO, or the community. This blog cannot be maintained at the level of my current interest and investment. One should not feel forced to write, or pressured to keep up with the news enough to post every time a new bit of information is released. It might be said I've lost the passion that started the Adventurer. I don't think that's the case - rather that passion has been redirected. Strike that, the passion has continued on its course, the Adventurer and LOTRO simply didn't follow.

Insert a lamentful sigh. I started writing this post with a completely different end-point in sight. I honestly did not start with the intent to make this a good-bye. But that's where it naturally flowed.

What does that mean for my future as a LOTRO player? As I said, I will not stop playing, but I won't feel compelled to play for blogging, or to keep up with what's going on in the game. I will not disappear from the community - I still read the fellow LOTRO blogs, and will comment more often now that I'm not posting here. What this does offer me is an opportunity to pursue other forms of writing. I've aspired to be a professional fiction writer since high-school and yet have done little to further that goal. Perhaps now is the time to revisit this.

Take care my fellow adventurers. May your journeys be forever blessed. I leave you last with a blessing from Elrond to the Fellowship as they departed:

"Ála tira acca haiya! Mal si a vanya as márë órelyar! Namárië, ar nai aistalë Eldar ar Atani ar ilyë Léralieron hilya le! Eleni sílar antalyannar!"



Sunday, October 25, 2009

This isn't LOTRO related except for sharing the mythos. Yesterday (Saturday) I had my 6th annual LOTR Day. The previous 5 years comprised solely of a movie marathon, the first culminating with a trip to the midnight showing of Return of the King. This year, however, I decided to do something a little different. Instead of sitting on the couch or floor for 13 hours straight, I thought we'd mix it up a bit. Inspired by a post on another blog, I set up a menu of 8 hobbit meals to have throughout the day as we watched the movies. The list went as followers:
  • Breakfast - Omellets with various filling including cheese, bacon, chives, and red peppers
  • Second Breakfast - Berries with whipped cream and/or yogurt
  • Elevensies - Bread and cheese (sharp cheddar and Gouda)
  • Luncheon - Chicken stuffed pastries
  • Afternoon Tea - Assorted teas and seed cake
  • Dinner - Green salad including spring mix, carrots, cucumber, egg, olives, and tomatoes
  • Supper - Lamb stew with potatoes, carrots, and onions
  • Dessert - Vanilla and peanut crunch cheese cake
We also had games going, predominantly LOTR Risk. The event was a huge success. 17 people attended, most for the whole duration - starting at 7:30 with Breakfast and ending at 10:30 with the completion of Return of the King. Of course, with 8 meals we ate every 2 hours or so, but the portions were small. Actually, they were perfect. Small enough to not overfill us but large enough to keep us satisfied until the next meal. With different people bringing a different meal, no one person was stuck in the kitchen the whole time or dropped a lot of coin on a lot of food. It's hard express in words how pleased I am with how everything turned out - everybody had a great time. Both pictures and video do not do it justice either, but I have both: a photobucket set and a YouTube vid. Enjoy.


Middle-Earth Chronicles

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

I've found another LOTRO blog. I saw it linked in two separate places tonight so I definitely need to mention this before I call it a night. This one is called Middle-Earth Chronicles. They've been blogging since June this year, so they're pretty new, but the more the merrier I say! Do check them out.


Hearing My Voice

I know I've tweeted about it, but I don't think I've posted anything about my recent podcasting guest spots here on the blog. Over the course of three weeks I appeared on three different podcasts. Two were LOTRO related, one was not. The links are below if you're interested:
I definitely recommend the last two if only because they're LOTRO related and this is a LOTRO podcast. When guesting on SUWT, I was a little "star struck" and nervous. Hence I talked way too fast. And I cannot recommend A Casual Stroll to Mordor enough. Merric and Goldenstar are just hysterical. And I'd be remiss not specifically pointing out the awesome guys over at the Reporter - excellent podcasters, those two. Enjoy!


What is Content?

I got into a lively discussion on Twitter the other morning. And by morning I mean 5:45 AM. I like to check my overnight tweets before work (I follow quite a few people significantly outside my time zone). Anyhow, since I didn't ask permission to give out the name, this follower shall remain anonymous, but had a few gripes about Orion's post on some improvements to the rep system. The contention, if I didn't misunderstand, is that additions to the rep system, notably deeds for completing rep, doesn't constitute "content" where content is new activities for the player to partake in. Of course, we're arguing about the definition of "content." I assert that content is anything added to the game. My follower would prefer a more narrow reading of the term. I don't think this definition needs to be hard and fast. I can accept his opinion. Where the discussion became more dynamic was in the idea of too much non-content. And by non-content, I'm using the narrower definition.

Indeed, the whole of Orion's post was about improving the reputation system, in some cases with what could be termed fluff content. That is, rewards that don't directly affect your ability to combat mobs or complete content. This is not to say the improvements won't include useful rewards, but Orion wanted to also implement these fluff items as well - albeit a ways in the future. Notable in my Twitter conversation was deeds for completing reputation. Not trying to put words into my follower's mouth, but it seemed that he would prefer resources devoted to more significant content. As a completionist, I would love deeds/titles for reaching kindred in rep. But I can understand why someone would be disappointed at seeing effort devoted to this type of content.

On the whole, the reputation absolutely needs a steroids shot. It's pretty flabby now, and I think that's a relic of it being added post release, and with limited resources amidst a host of other content additions, many more significant or impacting than rep. The later rep "factions" (for lack of a better word) such as Forochel and Lothlorien implement reputation much better and more fluidly with the rest of the world - quests, deeds, gear, etc. But we're getting a piecemeal system, visible in the game. I would love to see Orion take putting all the reputation factions on the same level. This is especially important regarding rewards. Breeland and the Mathom Society, off the top of my head, have utterly useless rewards, almost entirely comprised of fluff. And this brings me to my last point: I agree with my follower that fluff is disconcerting - but only if all we're getting is fluff. Orion's post clearly points out we'll be seeing the more significant and impactful improvements first, and fluff stuff such as the deeds/titles much later on. He's got his priorities right.

Content, whether fluff or not, is always welcome so long as it's well designed. I think we've seen some hiccups lately with some content, but Orion's work on the early zone revamps gives me supreme confidence that the content improvements we see in the reputation systems will be of excellent quality.


Developer Q&A Part 2

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Not sure if I linked to the first part of the Q&A, but you can find that link here. This post will pretty much be a run down of the questions I personally find interesting and my thoughts. To simplify, I'll just quote the answers. So, here goes...

AMD’s recent announcement of their first DirectX 11 video cards included a mention that LOTRO was adding DX11 support. You will not see it with Siege of Mirkwood, but you should expect it to arrive sometime next year.

I'm really stoked that the dev team is putting effort into adding support for the next gen technology in an previously existing game. There's no doubt LOTRO has some amazing graphics. Anything to further enhance that is good, so long as it doesn't seriously hamper performance. The great thing about the DX10 support is it is activated via check boxes in the graphics options. There's no forcing players to use DX10 cards. I hope their comitment to their graphics engine continues as the game does - perhaps a ways down the road we can see a graphics overhaul similarly experienced in Eve and Ultima Online. This kind of work can certainly prepare them for such an endeavor.

Mirkwood is roughly 75-80% of the size of the Northdowns.

A little disappointed in the size, but oh well. I guess I'm just partial to a grand experience in size and scope of Middle-Earth.

Not for Siege of Mirkwood, though we’d love to revisit [housing and guilds] at some point in time.

Vague enough that I'm pretty positive they do not have any plans in the works yet. I too would love to see this "at some point in time" but previous posts from the dev team have pretty much said housing isn't a priority because it would require enough resources to cut significant work in other areas of the game. Still, at some point in time that priority has to change.

Many of the questions are very specific and reminiscent of dev chat type responses, rather than a press release. That's a good thing. I hope to see more of these types of articles in the future. Perhaps a better method then a dev chat? Maybe that's where they're going. I haven't seen a dev chat in quite a while, now that I think about it.


Skirmishes Dev Diary 3

Here's the part I was most interested in regarding skirmishes: randomization and scaling. These two features combined offers so much potential for content that will retain players beyond the typical instance or raid progression. I'll let the dev diary speak for itself, but I have to mention I'm not keen on the idea of the fellowship leader being required to set the group level (i.e. solo, 3-man, 6-man, and 12-man). I'd rather see it auto set. Why? Because it puts the UI and system in between the player and the world/content. Certainly setting the difficulty, if you will, is a small and painless step in the process. That isn't the point. Instead I think a philosophy of transparency is better. Completely subjective design opinion on my part so long as the UI interaction is as painless as I'm assuming. I'll leave the thought here, but I have a post in the works that delves more into this design philosophy. For now, know that I'm still excited about skirmishes. It's my biggest anticipated feature. Well, the horse change too but just because I want to collect all the horses. It should be a pretty awesome system.


Skirmishes Dev Diary 2

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

To sum up this second part of the Skirmish dev diary series: "Skirmishes are..." Zombie Columbus (author of the dev diary) details exactly what skirmishes are and the goals behind which they were created. In a nutshell, the War of the Ring is advancing into Eriador at the current time point we leave off the story: In Lothlorien with the resting Fellowship. However, Eriador as a persistant zone in LOTRO does not move beyond the time frame assigned to it and its quests when it first entered the game. As such, we cannot see Bree come under assault, for example. With skirmishes, we'll be entering an instanced space where we can move time forward (i.e. winter snow in Bree). And the world immersion factor isn't broken by suddenly having an assault while quest NPCs continue to direct you away from their location to fight evil.

In reality, we're not seeing much more information here than we already know. Part 3 will delve into the technology and systems used in skirmishes. This is actually the part that interests me the most. I'm very much excited about how Turbine is handling their randomization and scaling. I think these two techs/approaches can be applied in other arenas to great benefit. I won't go into detail here (save it for a separate post - gotta get my count up. Hehe.)


A Year in Review

I can't believe it. Today it has been exactly one year since I started blogging. A lot has happened in that one year. Let's take a look:

  • Got a new computer
  • Got a job
  • Turned 24
  • Sister moved out
  • Mines of Moria released
  • Three festivals
  • Two book updates
  • One new zone
  • A double birthday party
  • Pirates invade Middle-Earth
  • Next expansion announced
  • Two-year anniversary
  • I've played the game for over 3 years
  • Total Posts: 427 (counting this one)
  • Average Posts Per Month: 32.8
  • Slowest Month: July 09 with 12
  • Busiest Month: March 09 with 77
  • Three new podcasts found (with blogs)
  • Appeared on three podcasts (not all same as above)
Where I've Been

I started The Middle-Earth Adventurer because I couldn't find a good LOTRO blog. From then my blogroll has grown by leaps and bounds. There's an amazing and active group of LOTRO bloggers and podcasters out there. From humble beginnings as a newbie blogger to a member of a vibrant community.

Where I'm Going

With my life changing and going to change some more, I can almost guarantee that I'll be blogging less frequently. Indeed, we've seen this at the present. However, I fervently hope The Adventurer continues strong for another year. You might see me less frequently, but hopefully none of the quality is lost. However, there is one area of growth that may be of interest: podcasts! After participating in two podcasts as of this writing (three by the end of tonight), I've been infected with podcast fever. In that vein, I'll be creating a podcast version of The Middle-Earth Adventurer.

Now, I go into this new medium with the goal of not doing the same thing as the other great LOTRO podcasts. Instead I'll be using the video medium. No, you probably won't get to see my ugly mug, however, my voice will be forever ingrained into your brains... muahahahahah! *ahem* The podcast will be called MEA Monthly. Clearly I'll be only releasing one every month (my schedule cannot take any greater frequency). The exact content is yet to be determined, but expect fancy flying text, screenshots, and video capture. Also expect a fairly short runtime (10 minutes max is my goal). And of course there will be more info to come as the release gets closer (aiming for end of October).

A Last Word

Thank you all for reading and subscribing. Thank you to the LOTRO blogging and podcasting community for being such awesome people. I hope you'll continue to read The Adventurer in the year to come. Now, time for some cake.


A Bit More Legendary

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

A legendary weapons dev diary was released today and I must say, I'm excited. This is a much needed boost to a system that, after a while, felt worse than some of the upper level slayer deed grinds. Here are some of the highlights:
  • All Weapons Lvl to 60
  • Legacy Modifying Scrolls
  • IXP Curve Altered
  • Crafted Relics
  • 4th Runic Slot
All these features combine to do a couple of things. First, the grind is significantly lessened. Second, we will have a good idea of a weapon's value to use right at identification, instead of after leveling it 20 - 30 levels. Third, less pressure to have a 2nd or even 1st age weapon - 3rd ages, at 60, should be pretty decent, especially if you used some of those scrolls. Fourth, crafters play a better roll in the legendary system.

What this means is that we're seeing this system closer to what a "legendary" weapon really would be. While not perfect, we should be hanging on to our swords and bows and javelins a little bit longer now that we can foresee where they're going and significantly alter them at any point in the process. This is an excellent change to the system - and one that many have wanted for a while. Some of the changes were predicted, and others were a pleasant surprise. Quality work, Turbine.


Cor Pethroni

Hey, it's about time I mention the third kinship I'm involved with, and let all you readers know you can join! The folks over at the LOTRO Reporter created a new kinship on the Brandywine server called Cor Pethroni. It's Elvish for "Ring Narrators." Perfect for what this kinship is all about - we're full of LOTRO bloggers and LOTRO blog readers. So, if that fits you, you're welcome to join up. My character is Sharrien, an Elven huntress (yes, technically a "hunter" but I thought I'd indicate gender in my chosen class). I'll be on every Tuesday from around 7 to 9 PM Pacific Time in case you want an invite; just send a tell. However, there's a host of others that can recruit you as well. Check out the my.lotro page I linked above for who's an officer - they'll be able to conduct your hazing... er... entrance ceremony.

While I won't be able to be on very much, many of us will have more time, so it shouldn't be a ghost town. Come on in. We don't have any big agenda or plan except to connect to our readers and each other in-game as well as in the blogosphere. But don't let our casual nature cause you pause. Perhaps you can be the one to organize some events, instance runs, or other group content.


A Skirmish Overview

Sunday, October 4, 2009

This starts a series of dev diaries about the new skirmish system to launch with the Siege of Mirkwood expansion this December. While the first installment is just an overview, I think it gives a nice picture of how long a development cycle a major system like this requires. Zombie Columbus and Rhidden started musing about skirmishes just as Moria was launching last year. And even then, they were just under the deadline for getting something new into the next expansion.

The overview here doesn't really give us any new info about the specifics of skirmishes. The Ten Ton Hammer interview with Jeffery Steefle does a much better job of that at the moment. However, if any of the previous dev diaries are an indication, we should be getting a lot more juicy tid-bits soon.


Shared Storage Overview

This dev diary is small, as the system is quite straight forward. However, it is one of those much desired "extra" features that polish the game even more. I'm not the type of player this is catered to, though. Altoholism isn't my vice in this game. Rather I'm a completionist. There's no help or hope for that one. Anyway, the shared vault space is great for those of you who love your alts, specifically crafting alts. The coin to send stacks and stacks of mats in the mail adds up quickly, and it's a pain to have to retrieve all of those mats one at a time from your mailbox.

One nice feature is the ability to put bound items into the shared storage. At first this might seem unnecessary but in effect the shared storage space becomes extra vault space for your characters. While only the character that an item is bound to can retrieve it from the shared storage, having it there means it's not taking up space in your regular vault, and visa-versa. Yay for more vault space!


Mounts 2.0 Dev Diary

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

It's the little quality of life improvements that make me the happiest in LOTRO. And seeing the new changes to the mount system gets me almost as excited as trying out the skirmishes. I doubt any dev would call what they did for mounts in SoM a "little" update, but it is a refinement of content.

And that's the best way to describe it. We can talk to NPCs on our mounts, go through doors or "portals" on our mounts, emote on our mounts, use certain skills on our mounts. It makes mounts less of a simple point-A-to-point-B device and more a part of our character. And as a skill, mounts no longer take up space, so that means we can collect as many as we like without having bags or bank space devoted to our stable. I know this will give me a new money sink on Jaxom. A horse of every color and variety for me please!

One last thing: the dev diary has a little blurb at the end pretty much trying to say that this mount system change was not designed to take on mounted combat. However, despite this, they do say the system was designed for expandability and flexibility. I think mounted combat does fit into that design feature.

And lastly, at this point in LOTRO's life, it's a little known fact that mounts weren't going to be in release until quite late in the development process - the dev diary alludes to that as well. I for one am supremely happy they did make it in, even limited as they were. It would suck to run all the time and could have been a serious stumbling block to player retention.